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Backyard Gold

Home beekeeping is on the rise. Bees are green citizens, the taste of local honey is a revelation, and the bees are too busy serving their queen to bug you.

Posted July 9, 2008 by Laura Schenone

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Backyard Gold
In their Montclair backyard, Sally Reinhardt uses a vacuum cleaner in reverse to blow bees off the honey-filled frame held by her husband, Will.
Photos: Chris Crisman

Backyard Gold
In their workshop, Will Reinhardt scrapes the wax caps off the honey-filled cells.
Photo by Chris Crisman

Backyard Gold
Sally fills bottles from the extractor, which centrifugally separates honey from any remaining wax.
Photo by Chris Crisman

Backyard Gold
Photo by Chris Crisman

Here are a few things just about every New Jersey beekeeper is desperate to tell you from the get-go.

First: Honeybees are not dangerous. It drives beekeepers nuts when you confuse their gentle creatures with menacing hornets, yellow jackets, and other wasps. 

But that’s not all. They want to tell you about the magic. Did you know that honeybees communicate through dance and carry out elaborate mating rituals in the sky? Did you know that they pollinate one-third of our crops, upholding human agriculture? These model citizens are far too busy to bother themselves with stinging you.

Unless, of course, you go into their hive and steal their honey. Which is what Will Reinhardt is about to do on this late-summer day. With a veil over his head and gloves on his hands, he takes a careful step toward the two hives in his Montclair backyard.

“It’s best to stay calm,” he says softly as he lifts a lid on the top box. With a handheld smoker, which burns sticks and leaves, he pumps cool gray plumes inside. The smoke subdues the bees, and they burrow down to protect their queen.

I am only a little afraid. 

Like all modern beekeepers, Reinhardt and his wife, Sally, keep their hives in stacked wooden boxes (a system invented in 1852), each of which creates a mini-kingdom for a colony of more than 50,000 to 60,000 bees in summer. Here they breed, make honey, and winter for the next season. The box system also makes it easy for humans to get at the sweet stuff.

Will lifts out what looks like a large picture frame. It is heavy with wax-capped cells, each filled with honey—bees still clinging, a few bouncing off his hands. He is a reserved man, but the look on his face is clearly victorious. 

Backyard beekeeping is on the rise in New Jersey after decades of decline. Since 1950, urbanization, an abundance of cheap sugar, use of pesticides, and poor bee health had cut the number of U.S. hives in half.
What a surprise, then, when the Rutgers Office of Continuing Professional Education offered a course last spring called “Bee-ginner’s Beekeeping,” and 350 people signed up—more than three times the number expected. Landi Simone, president of the Essex County Beekeepers Society, and one of only eight certified Master Beekeepers in the state (and the only woman) had a similar experience in a course she offered.
“We had to turn students away. I’ve never had that many people. There’s been a huge surge of interest in beekeeping.”

“We’ve added between 250 to 300 new beekeepers just this year,” says Tim Schuler, who bears the title of New Jersey state apiarist. He estimates that the state now has between 1,500 and 2,000 backyard beekeepers.

The New Jersey Beekeepers Association has several local chapters that offer events and seminars where old-guard and new-guard beekeepers come together to share expertise and best practices in bee health.

“We’re like a secret brotherhood and sisterhood of bee geeks,” says Stephen Schuckman, a horticultural consultant in Essex County and certified tree expert who teaches beekeeping and keeps numerous hives in his own and other peoples’ backyards. “When you meet a beekeeper, suddenly you’re friends. People are generous about sharing. We love to exchange ideas and experience.”

Why all the interest?

“People have heard about the problems bees have been having, and it’s stimulated their interest in honey and keeping bees,” explains Schuler.  “This is the silver lining.”

What he’s talking about, of course, is colony collapse disorder—the mysterious phenomenon of 2006 when hives across the nation were found suddenly empty: no dead bodies, honey intact, bees vanished. As losses stacked up at 30 to 90 percent of bees nationwide, scientists struggled to explain. So far no single cause has been found, but rather a combination of factors, including viruses, mites, loss of habitat, overuse of pesticides, and general bee stress. In truth, U.S. honeybees have been in declining health for a number of years due to many of these factors. In New Jersey, losses in the winter of 2006 and spring of 2007 averaged 45 percent.

“When I tell people I’m a beekeeper now, the first thing they ask me isn’t the usual, ‘aren’t you afraid of getting stung?’” says Simone. “Instead people ask how my bees are doing. That’s an improvement.”

“We’re getting lots of calls for presentations at schools and libraries,” says Peter Leighton, president of the New Jersey Beekeepers Association. “It’s a good thing. We need to educate the public about bees. Libraries are hosting a statewide summer reading program called ‘Catch the Reading Bug.’”

Though bees in the U.S. are struggling again this year, Jersey bees have been fairing comparatively well. Post winter losses are down to a mere 17 percent. Plus, the honey is flowing nicely.

Back at the Reinhardts’ yard, it’s time to bring the honey into the house for extraction so it can be put into jars. Will and Sally have a small lot—half asphalt and half flowers (good for the bees)—in a neighborhood where houses are packed closely together. Let’s just say the neighbors did not exactly send a welcoming committee to greet the 5,000 bees that arrived one day.

“People called the police at first,” says Sally. “They were afraid.”

But that was six years ago. Now, acceptance—for the most part—has settled in. Frequent gifts of honey haven’t hurt, either. “We show the neighbors the bees, and we’ve gotten lots of people interested. Some people are delighted. They love honey.”

Will and Sally began their bee journey when Will took a class at the Montclair Adult School. It was a bit of a lark. They own and run the Bread Company in Montclair, a gem of a shop that specializes in wholesome breads and a friendly atmosphere, combining art (Sally has a gallery next door) with organic ethics and an abundance of flowers at the front door.

Like their bees, the Reinhardts are hard workers determined to give more to the planet than they take. They spent much of their youths living in remote places like the Australian bush and the rocky coast of Ireland before coming to Montclair in 1992 to be close to Will’s father and open the bakery.

I got interested a few years back when I went to the shop and something caught my eye. Next to the vegetable pizzas and cardamom-scented buns was a pyramid of jars filled with what looked like pale liquid gold. A handmade sign read “Will’s honey.”

An hour later, I stood at my kitchen counter, spoon in hand, astounded. This honey was delicate and light, with an extraordinary minty taste. It was one of the most delicious things I had ever tasted.
I had always known that honey varies according to the bees’ choice of flower (as in the clover or orange blossom honey on supermarket shelves). But it had never occurred to me that honey might come from the blossoms of Linden trees in my own neighborhood. Nor had I fully understood that almost all supermarket honey is a commodity product—mixed from far-flung hives into a dull standard that is sweet and predictable. But flavorful? Well, not quite.

Now, inside the cool of their house, Will and Sally use a special tool to scrape off the wax caps, revealing a thick ooze in each cell. This is food the bees made to last them through winter. It’s late summer, and they have been feeding on purple loosestrife and sunflowers. The honey runs dark amber.

Sally tells me many people believe that eating local honey every day is good for you because you ingest small bits of local pollen and build your immunity to allergens. It is a folk remedy, which scientific studies have largely debunked, but a highly appealing kind of natural inoculation nonetheless.

Next, Will and Sally take turns pouring what they’ve got into an extractor, a cylindrical, crank-operated device with a spout at the bottom. As the honey descends, the extractor filters out the wax. Sally lines up glass jars beneath the spout. In this way, the Reinhardts get about 150 pounds a year.

At this point, it’s worth explaining that the honeybee, Apis mellifera, was originally brought to New Jersey hundreds of years ago by colonists from Europe. Before the honeybee arrived, North America had plenty of its own native pollinators, including various species of honey-making bees (such as bumblebees), as well as birds, bats, butterflies, and moths.

With the loss of forests, flowers, and natural landscapes, our native pollinators lost habitat and food. So modern commercial farmers turned to honeybees, which have a remarkable ability to reproduce by the thousands and live in portable boxes. They are the bee of choice for single-crop modern agriculture because the boxes can be driven to the large fields of single-crop farmers. It is a service farmers need and pay for.

The term pollinator relates to the sex lives of flowers, in which the bee is the unwitting messenger between stigmas and stamens. As bees move from flower to flower seeking nectar, they sloppily drop grains of pollen. The result: fertilization. Crops and trees have babies, i.e. fruits and vegetables. Trees and bushes multiply, creating shelter and food for wildlife. The impact of honeybees on the natural world is mind-boggling.

It gets crazier when you consider the dollars involved. In New Jersey alone, honeybees pollinate $200 million in crops, including cranberries, apples, pumpkins, cantaloupes, and many other kinds of vine plants. Jersey blueberries—a major and expanding crop—are entirely dependent on pollination, requiring 10,000 hives each season. There are only about 8,000 hives in the state, so bees get shipped in to fill the gap. Yes, Jersey’s migrant farm workers include honeybees from other states.

“We bring in 1,000 hives each spring for about three weeks,” says Dennis Doyle, general manager of Atlantic Blueberry in Hammonton, the largest cultivated blueberry farm in the world. “We have long relationships with beekeepers who bring up bees from Florida.”

The shortage of Jersey bees prompted the state Department of Agriculture to offer up to $300 worth of equipment and bees to people who complete the “Bee-ginner’s Beekeeping” course. The hope is that hobbyists, like the Reinhardts, will fall so in love that they’ll become medium-sized producers, selling honey in farmers’ markets and setting up hives on farms.

But wait. What kind of person would want to toil in a claustrophobic veil in wilting heat surrounded by thousands of buzzing insects with stingers?

“They come from all walks of life,” says Schuler. “I see brain surgeons and chemists and ditch diggers and hippies all raising bees. Now we’re also seeing a lot more diversity, too. Beekeeping used to be an older man’s thing. Younger people are getting interested. And a lot more women, too.”

When you ask beekeepers how they got into it, you usually hear a tale of passion—either for bees themselves, a love of wildlife, or perhaps of a family history and a sense that honey runs in their blood.

“I was with my husband fifteen years before I even knew he was a beekeeper,” says Beatrice Tassot of Tassot Apiaries in Long Valley. Beatrice, a city girl, and her husband, Jean-Claude, met and lived together in Paris. But Jean-Claude had been raised in Burgundy near an uncle who kept bees. It was a fact Beatrice never fully understood until the Tassots immigrated to the U.S. in 2000 and bought a house on four acres in Long Valley. Jean-Claude announced, “I want to buy a beehive and show our son.”

The first time they harvested, they got 75 1-pound bottles from their single hive.

“We gave it to our friends, but we had a lot left,” says Jean-Claude. “We went to a farmer next door and asked him if he’d sell it at his stand. It sold out in two days.”

That single hive turned into two, then six. Eventually, Jean-Claude quit his full-time job in the toy department at Target and built more than 150 beehives. Tassot Apiaries now sells honey through its website and at farmers’ markets all over the state. They also pollinate, sometimes bartering their bees’ services in exchange for a place to locate their hives.

“If farmers want us to be very punctual and bring our bees for a certain set of weeks and take them away on time, we charge them,” says Jean-Claude. “If they let us keep our hives there all year, we do it for free.”
Such a business cannot support a family. “No way,” says Jean-Claude. “One person needs a real job.” Beatrice works as executive director of the Alcatel-Lucent Foundation. 

Landi Simone, with her 65-hive Gooserock Farm in Montville, agrees. “It’s not lucrative. It’s about passion. When I’m looking at new queens, there’s a magic. The bees are doing what they’re supposed to be doing and so am I. It’s almost a spiritual experience.”

In densely populated Jersey, the resurgence of beekeeping has also brought some not-in-my-backyard reaction. A few towns (such as Alpine and Closter) have passed ordinances against beekeeping. “We’re fighting that,” says Leighton, of the New Jersey Beekeepers Association, which sends experts to testify at public hearings—so far to no avail.

Schuler is a bit more forceful. “We need to educate people,” he says. “Honeybees are not our enemies. They’re our friends. I think a hive in every high school would be a good learning tool. Students would be fascinated and get interested in the environment and in biology. But there are principals who quake in their boots at the idea that someone might get stung. It used to be, 25 years ago if a kid got stung, well, a kid got stung—big deal. But not anymore. I think it’s sad.”

“We need to take care of the bees,” says Sally Reinhardt. “They give the world so much.” To prove the point, she and Will are holding the first Montclair Honeybee Fest on Saturday, August 9, at Sally’s Studio, adjoining the Reinhardts’ bakery at 113 Walnut Street, 10 am to 6 pm. (sallysstudio.com or thebreadcompany.com.) The festival includes bee-inspired art by Sally and other artists, bee quilts, bee tees, bee-attracting flowers, snacks, spring honey, honey drinks, an observation hive, and music.
“We are doing this to honor these wonderful creatures,” she says.

Contributing writer Laura Schenone lives in Montclair. Her most recent book is The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken. She blogs at jellypress.com


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